Josephine Decker’s new drama Shirley captures a compelling essence of American horror and mystery writer Shirley Jackson, rather than being a straight biopic about The Haunting of Hill House author. It also offers a significant comment on women’s place in 1950s society, based on Jackson’s writings interpreted in Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel Shirley. In the film, events are seen through the eyes of a fictional female house guest staying with the writer. Fans of Jackson will be greatly satisfied with The Handmaid’s Tale star Elisabeth Moss’ portrayal, as well as how Jackson’s beliefs, personality and fears are deftly interpreted by Decker.
The story opens with Shirley suffering from severe writer’s block while trying to avoid societal expectations of a wife in 1950s America. Meanwhile, her literary critic husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) who teaches at the local university is free of such constraints and enjoys socialising and flirting with the faculty wives and generally living life to the full, much to Shirley’s distress.
To assist his wife in penning her new novel, Hyman invites young newlywed couple Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) to stay. Rose will manage the house to allow Shirley to work. With the menfolk out all day, and amused by her young live-in guest and her beliefs, Shirley toys with Rose’s emotions and stretches her boundaries. Rose experiences an ‘awakening’ as both women eventually grow very fond of each other out of curiosity, which also helps Shirley, both personally and professionally. The outcome changes the lives of all involved.
Decker’s tight framing often pulls in and out of focus as it moves around Moss and draws the viewer further into Shirley’s psyche while depicting the author’s debilitating agoraphobia. Moss totally embodies Shirley in look and behaviour, so much so that she is mesmerising to watch as she is utterly unpredictable in any given moment. As erratic as her behaviour is, Moss perfectly captures Shirley’s sharp tongue and unforgiving nature, even in the author’s drunken and depressed state, demonstrating that Shirley is nobody’s fool and has all her wits about her.
It is an absolute delight to watch Moss as Shirley enter constricted social circles of catty women and wreck havoc. One such scene is when she deliberately spills red wine on a female host’s sofa who she suspects of having an affair with her husband. Bizarrely, this woman is more concerned about Shirley’s lack of domestic knowledge that you ‘dab’, not ‘rub’ such a stain out, than the damage caused to the furniture. Moss plays out what you only dream concubine June Osborne should have done within her domestic prison in The Handmaid’s Tale’s dystopian future. This scene also serves as another prime example of how far Shirley comes in tackling her consuming anxiety disorder, as she faces the fear and panic that makes her feel trapped, helpless and embarrassed head on.
Although Moss’ performance dominates the film, Young as Rose is equally captivating, as she develops in personality and confidence, shaking off feelings of entrapment, and becoming a stronger independent woman in the end. Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins take great care to depict the love-hate relationship between Jackson and Rose and how it changes the women for the better.
Shirley is a purely character-driven narrative or expose of women’s changing lives under one roof, with very little else in terms of plot. As fascinating as this is for some, it does lag in parts and becomes almost indulgent in others, saved only by another wayward action or comment from its namesake character. Decker’s vanity project as such may only appeal to fans of Shirley Jackson or Elizabeth Moss too, as it bolsters the star’s impressive acting credentials further. Australian Young also benefits from this female-centric project as an alluring star talent to watch in the future.